When I last wrote about Nietzsche studies, it was to grouse about some unhappy developments; here I want to write more constructively and also to inaugurate an on-going series on different areas of philosophy, where I'll invite different philosophers to address "where the action is" in their subfield.
Last week, I was talking with one of the University of London graduate students participating in the Gemes/Leiter "intercollegiate" seminar on Nietzsche about what kind of work was worth doing in Nietzsche studies. Nietzsche studies in English-speaking philosophy have really flourished over the last 15 years (Clark's book, below, probably marks the turning point), and while there (alas!) continues to be an enormous amount of sophomoric garbage written about Nietzsche, there has emerged, for the first time, a secondary literature on Nietzsche that compares favorably in scholarly seriousness and philosophical quality, with the best work on Kant or Hegel or Marx. While the complete "professionalization" of the discipline of philosophy means that there is now some demand for specialist work on just about any figure in the history of philosophy, quite independent of his merits, in the case of Nietzsche there is an increasing recognition, both inside and outside the realm of specialists in post-Kantian German philosophy, that Nietzsche may really be the philosophical thinker of significance after Kant, and certainly one with at least as much resonance to themes in English-speaking philosophy as Hegel or Heidegger.
So, to return to my discussion with the postgraduate student mentioned above, the question arises what should someone thinking of doing doctoral research on Nietzsche pursue? Where, today, is the "action" in Nietzsche studies: what needs to be done? (A somewhat dated discussion of this topic is here.)
It seems to me there are now three lively and fruitful areas of philosophical research and writing about Nietzsche: (1) studies of the historical context in which Nietzsche was writing attending, in particular, to the historical influences operative on him--work that demands both command of Nietzsche and command of the relevant portions of the history of philosophy; (2) close, philosophically-minded readings of particulars books by Nietzsche; and (3) philosophical studies of particular topics or themes of significance in Nietzsche: his moral philosophy, his theory of mind or action, his metaphysics or epistemology. What has fallen very much out of favor, it seems to me, are the "global" studies of Nietzsche, which attempt to canvass all his famous (if not most important) themes, like will to power, the overman, and eternal recurrence--though, to be sure, there are honorable, and important, exceptions that discharge this ambitious task admirably, such as John Richardon's Nietzsche's System (Oxford, 1996) and Bernard Reginster's The Affirmation of Life: Nietzsche on Overcoming Nihilism (Harvard, forthcoming).
Historical studies aim to illuminate Nietzsche's ideas and arguments by shedding light on the historical context in which he wrote: the intellectual currents of his time, the particular authors he was reading, the philosophers who mattered most to him. Examples of such studies in recent years include: Christopher Janaway's edited collection on Willing and Nothingness: Schopenhauer as Nietzsche's Educator (Oxford, 1998); Gregory Moore's Nietzsche, Biology and Metaphor (Cambridge, 2002); Michael Green's Nietzsche and the Transcendental Tradition (Illinois, 2002); in some respects, John Richardson's Nietzsche's New Darwinism (Oxford, 2004) (though this also develops the ambitious, systematic account of Nietzsche's philosophy from his earlier book [UPDATE: see Jessica Berry's illuminating review of the Richardson book]); Robin Small's Nietzsche and Ree: A Start Friendship (Oxford, 2005); Lanier Anderson's and Nadeem Hussain's articles on the influence of NeoKantianism and positivism on Nietzsche; Jessica Berry's and Richard Bett's articles on Nietzsche and ancient skepticism; and, in more modest forms, the portions dealing with Schopenhauer of Reginster's The Affirmation of Life (Harvard, forthcoming); the portions dealing with Plato in Richardson's Nietzsche's System (Oxford, 1996); and Chapter 2 of my Nietzsche on Morality (Routledge, 2002) surveying the impact of the Presocratics, Schopenhauer, and German Materialism on Nietzsche. This work, to be sure, varies a bit in its philosophical sophistication and competence, but even where this is obviously lacking (as in Moore's book), the historical erudition still provides rich material for the philosophically-minded reader of Nietzsche.
Textual studies aim to elucidate the philosophical structure and arguments of the books Nietzsche actually published. These kinds of projects are probably least suitable for doctoral students, though they increasingly attract the attention of accomplished scholars, and some of the best studies of this kind are still to appear, such as Maudemarie Clark and David Dudrick's book on Beyond Good and Evil and Christopher Janaway's book on On the Genealogy of Morality. Earlier examples tend to focus mainly on the Genealogy, such as Mathias Risse's articles, and the relevant sections of my Nietzsche on Morality (Routledge, 2002) and Simon May's Nietzsche's Ethics and his 'War on Morality' (Oxford, 1999).
Philosophical/thematic studies treat Nietzsche as the philosopher he really is, and explore, and evaluate, his views with respect to particular issues in moral philosophy, metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind and action. Such studies demand both knowledge of Nietzsche and knowledge of the relevant philosophy, and thus mark the most important respect in which Nietzsche has now joined the canon of important historical figures in the history of philosophy. The watershed work was probably Maudemarie Clark's Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (Cambridge, 1990), which was followed by Lester Hunt's Nietzsche and the Origin of Virtues (Routledge, 1991), Peter Poellner's Nietzsche and Metaphysics (Oxford, 1995); my own Nietzsche on Morality (Routledge, 2002); and many articles by Mathias Risse, Nadeem Hussain, Bernard Williams, Ken Gemes, Raymond Geuss, Paul Katsafanas, and others (European Journal of Philosophy has published many of these papers). Neil Sinhababu and I have tried to collect a set of new papers of this kind in Nietzsche and Morality (Oxford, 2006) (with contributions by myself and Sinhababu, as well as Clark & Dudrick, Janaway, Risse, Hussain, Reginster, Poellner, Thomas Hurka, Simon Blackburn, Joshua Knobe, Jay Wallace, and Donald Rutherford). Some of the most lively, recent philosophical debates have concerned, on the one hand, Nietzsche's moral psychology, and, on the other, his philosophy of mind and action (his critique of free will, his account of agency, his understanding of consciousness).
I'd be interested to hear how specialists and doctoral students perceive the field. Comments are open; no anonymous postings and bear in mind that comments may take awhile to appear, so post only once!